International development?

It has now been almost 9 months since I spent a brief period in Mumbai, India, working with 3 exceptional social enterprises. I work with several social ventures that look to grow and scale; my role is to help them to do so, be that through articulating their value proposition, helping forecast their financial position or measuring the impact they are creating, or in any other way.

One thing that has stuck with me is the cultural differences and the meaning of ‘international development’ and ‘developing economies’ particularly in relation to Indian ventures. On my first evening in Mumbai, I remember vividly a conversation I had with an employee at Grassroutes in which we discussed a developing economy, and the western world’s role in this. He immediately drew attention to my use of the phrase developing economy and asked me what I meant by this. I was referring to the economic growth and GDP. He agreed with me in terms of financial and economic development, but he highlighted the fact that GDP didn’t account for happiness and wellbeing. Indeed the difference between the UK and India seemed vast. Having never been to India before, I saw the levels of poverty and deprivation in the media and wasn’t sure how I would react when confronted directly with this. I spent time with a venture based in slums, and what struck me was that on the whole people seemed content, even happy. What defines happiness? In the west, too often it seems that this is based on material possessions, with people feeling a sense of entitlement, something which isn’t present in the mentality in India from what I could see. Instead people were happy as they were together and had a sense of community. I mentioned this to one International Development Student who claimed that this was just because these people ‘didn’t know any better’ and that they didn’t have access to the same resources. Personally I felt that this was incredibly short sighted. Who are we to say what is ‘better’? And I remember visiting one slum, and although there was 1 toilet to hundreds of people, everyone had a smartphone – a very good indication as to why technology companies see such potential in India.

This ‘not knowing any better’ view was firmly disproved to me during this conversation with the Grassroutes employee. He recounted a story of a small village in India in which the women had to walk for 10 miles a day to find fresh water. Based on our conditions and standard of life in the west, we saw this as a terrible situation to be in (of course there are several problems with this from a hygiene perspective). Funds were raised and a fresh water well was built in this village. Women no longer had to walk 10 miles to fetch fresh water, instead they had it, literally, on tap. However, what wasn’t accounted for was the cultural effect this would have. The level of suicides among women increased in this village. Given the cultural situation in this particular village, women weren’t able to actively travel without purpose. This meant that they lost the 10 mile walk during which they would meet friends and speak. Instead they were now socially isolated within their homes for several hours a day, which was seen to be the reason for the increased suicides.

One venture I work with is run by someone of Indian decent. The concept was to get people to eat more healthy food as a family. Although after research and piloting, they found that there wasn’t a market due to pretty significant cultural differences – the UK has very different social eating habits. As a result they had to completely re-evaluate their proposition and pivot.

The purpose of this post isn’t to criticise behaviour or attitudes, but more to highlight differences and the need for an open mind. Simply because we live in the western world and see ourselves as more developed, doesn’t mean that we need to enforce that upon others.

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The Indian Adventure: Purushwadi and Grassroutes

2014-03-04 07.29.03I had now been in India for 8 days, and all of the consultancy work in Mumbai was complete. As part of the trip, I had been fortunate enough to be invited to spend a few nights in Purushwadi, which is a village in central India. It was a 5 hour coach ride, during which time I witnessed some ‘interesting’ motorway driving and some breath-taking scenery. What made Purushwadi so special was that it was a self-sustaining village which had no electricity of running water. This was facilitated by an organisation called Grassroutes, who do a lot of work abroad to help educate people on the way in which other cultures live.

Because of Grassroutes direct link with Purushwadi, portable toilets with occasional running water had been installed for visitors; as had concrete block tents. As you can imagine sleeping on a concrete block mattress wasn’t the most comfortable, but after a long day, where I slept was irrelevant.

The village itself was incredible; stray animals were common – we seemed to adopt a dog – and the villagers were very resourceful. I quickly discovered that dung was used to insulate houses, which, if applied correctly, created a smooth floor, kept houses cool and in fact had no fragrance at all. The amount of work which everyone undertook on a daily basis, sowing and picking crops was astounding. Something which will live long in my memory is playing cricket with the local kids, who, of course, were far better than any of us.

The views were amazing; given that there was no electricity and that we were on the equator, you wake up when the sun comes up – around 6am – and you go to bed when the sun goes down; by 8pm it was pitch black. Without artificial lights which curse our skies, the sky was lit up by hundreds of stars, something I had never witnessed.

From a business point of view, it was a huge personal learning experience. In the west we are focused on material possessions and working for money, because that’s the culture in which we live. In Purushwadi, they have no need for money; everyone eats from the land and works hard to ensure that food is available for themselves and their community. People seemed incredibly content and probably happier given that they didn’t have the constant worry of how they were going to afford to pay bills. Of course there are obvious drawbacks, most importantly the lack of healthcare, however, this had been countered by their link with Grassroutes, who made a Doctor available to them regularly.

I left Purushwadi after 3 days having had an unforgettable experience which opened my eyes and changed my opinions on so many things. Upon returning to Mumbai, I had 9 hours until making my way to Mumbai International Airport to begin my epic 14 hour return journey. Without a shadow of a doubt, my view on ‘international development’ had been hugely altered (no doubt a topic I will discuss in the future), and I had learnt a great deal about business abroad and been proud to have had a part in 3 such ambitious and successful growing social ventures.

This blog is also available on the Kindle Store and you can follow me on Twitter (@benpfsmith) to find out more or get in touch.